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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about the use of fish oil to improve learning and behaviour. Is there any substance behind the claims or is it just a fad? Fish always used to be known as brain food and there are good physiological reasons to expect fish oil to help neurodevelopment. Fish oil is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) containing omega 3. Omega 3 fatty acids make up about 20% of brain and heart membrane. They are thought to speed up nerve and muscle signalling. Many children today have diets very low in fish. One would think therefore that fish oil supplements would help, especially for children with low fish diets. The evidence, however, is not strong. Research in 2005 by Alexandra Richardson and Paul Montgomery from Oxford University showed that omega 3 resulted in improvements with reading, spelling and behaviour (see the Food and Behaviour Research website). However, after these promising initial findings the research hasn’t been so positive.

    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) review on treatment for ADHD showed that the evidence does not support using omega 3 in the treatment of ADHD. http://www.nice.org.uk/Guidance/CG72/Guidance/pdf/English

    A large study was recently carried out in Durham UK with about 3000 children taking fatty acid supplements but there have been concerns about the way the trial was carried out, at the large number of pupils dropping out and the results are disappointing. The difficulties with the study are summarised here on the bad science website.

    One of the leading advocates of the positive effects of fish oil on brain development is Professor John Stein, professor of physiology at Magdelen College, Oxford (and interestingly the brother of famous fish chef Rick Stein). He is currently undertaking a study looking effects on the behaviour of boys in a Young Offenders Institute and this may provide some answers. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7618888.stm.

    Until then the jury is still out on the effectiveness on fish oil on neurodevelopment. There are some promising signs and from a biological perspective it does seem make sense, however, the evidence is not there at the moment to make clinical or policy recommendations. I will post any updates on this topic here.

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